The Mountain of Military Knowledge

I got this link in a Vice newsletter today: “Air Force Video Explains What a Penis Is.” 

Image from the U.S. Air Force via Vice.

Ha. Nice, Vice. That’s a funny one. It practically clicks itself. 

When I was through laughing, though, I started to wonder. If you surfaced all the information and knowledge the United States military has amassed, described it, and made it accessible, how big would the resulting library be? Would it rival the Library of Congress? What if you included the literal mountains full of classified information? 

Doctors in fatigues offering up a straight-faced explanation of the penis makes for a funny video, sure, but think about the context of that video. That penis video–a remarkably well done bit of public health information, I’m not too cool to admit–was likely produced as part of an overall health information strategy that included other videos designed to meet specific training goals for Air Force personnel. Someone had to draw and render that 3D phallus. Someone wrote the text, someone storyboarded the video, someone cast the doctors. Someone set up the studio. Someone made arrangements for the doctors to come and record their parts. Someone filmed the segments. They did multiple takes. Someone else–probably more than one someone–edited the video. Someone else posted it on the web. On and on it goes, every day, and that’s just videos. The Army and Navy probably have their own versions of the same thing, and each of them is just one example of hundreds of thousands of pamphlets, manuals, SOPs, videos, audio recordings, books, specifications, and other resources the military produced in just a single year. Multiply that by seventy-five years and you would have the Alexandria multiplex of knowledge accumulation and dissemination the modern American military has undertaken since the end of World War II. 

That’s not ephemeral information, like emails and phone logs, but strategic media created for the express purpose of knowledge transfer and managed according to long-term retention and preservation policies. Where is all of it? Vice mentions DVIDS, the “Defense Visual Information Distribution Service,” but that’s just visual information. The various service “doctrine” websites are another source, and of course the National Archives and Library of Congress have millions of items. Much of this knowledge is accessible, but it is extremely decentralized. What would we do with it all if it were described and catalogued? What if it was semantically linked? Would we just make fun of it, or would we make use of it?

It Finally Happened: Bing (and DuckDuckGo) Surpasses Google

Here’s a thing I didn’t expect to see today. A Bing search just outperformed a Google search in relevance. I was looking for a relatively obscure book to reference for an essay I’m writing, and behold!

The Bing results. Note the link. The book is available to checkout in PDF or ePub format at this link. The informational window at right is useful, as well. I was logged into my Microsoft account when I performed this search.
The Google results. With the exception of a blatant scam link in second place, all of these links point to places where I can buy the book. The first link leads to a review of the book in a scholarly journal. The link is nowhere to be found. Notably, none of these links lead to a PDF version of the book, which was one of the search terms. I was logged into my Google account when I performed this search.

I’ve been reading anecdotes about deteriorating Google search quality, and I now I have one of my very own to share.

Update: I wondered what would happen if I tried the same search using DuckDuckGo and the results are actually better than Google, too.

The DuckDuckGo results. Note the link in first place. A link to a dissertation hosted by my university’s scholarly commons is ranked second place. This made me suspicious, since DuckDuckGo prioritizes privacy and none of the other browsers included geographically relevant results, but the engine retrieved the same results when I ran the search through a VPN on a clean cache. Unfortunately the dissertation, though a PDF, was only tangentially relevant to the search. Still, the results are demonstrably better than Google’s.

None of this proves that these engines are better than Google as a daily driver, of course, but they certainly beat the behemoth in this edge case. With Apple rumored to be working on an alternative search service, too, competition may finally be coming to Mountain View.

Research of Note: Data Activism

Gutiérrez, Miren and Stefania Milan. “Playing with Data and its Consequences.” First Monday 24:1 (2019).

Scholars, advocates, and social critics frequently describe data as a structure of power used against citizens and the powerless online. In their article in the most recent First Monday, Miren Gutiérrez and Stefania Milan invert big data, arguing that “Citizens, activists and professionals alike embrace innovative data-related practices at the intersection of the digital and the informational, embedding data and ways of playing with data in their activities.

Data is undoubtedly used to oppress and exploit, but Gutiérrez and Milan show how it can be used to advocate for the rights of the less powerful, as well. Recent work in critical studies of neoliberalism–I’m thinking about Byung-Chul Han’s ideas, in particular, which are very nicely summarized in the Verso essay collection, Psychopolitics–paints a nearly hopeless picture of privacy in the radically transparent world that social media has wrought. While it does not occupy the same intellectual field, this research introduces a necessary critical counterpoint.

A Thought on Indexing and Power

Tonight I was reading a book on indexing and abstracting–Brian O’Connor’s Explorations in Indexing and Abstracting (1996)–and had to stop and think about one of O’Connor’s guiding principles: “a subject is not an inherent element of a text.”

What do you mean? I thought. Doesn’t every text have a subject? Well, first of all, no. Many texts don’t have a subject, or they merely imply a subject, or they contribute to a composite subject. Ok. So then I wondered: isn’t this just hair-splitting? I had to think about it a bit more to realize that O’Connor’s point is bigger than that. The subject does not inhere in the text. You have to examine the text to understand its subject–or lack thereof. You have to master it.

But mastery is something else entirely; something not hair-splitting, but hair-raising. Mastery is the exercise of power.

The huge and ever-expanding power of technology companies in our lives today underlines an enduring cliché: information is power. But raw information is useless. Real power rests in the hands of information brokers: those who can master texts well enough to make the information they contain accessible to those who need it. This is the most significant reason why Google is so powerful. We all desperately want and need the information on the internet, but no one can sort through it all. We need a tool, therefore, that can match the questions in our heads to the answers other people have written down, and Google has done it better than anyone else.

I mention Google and the power of tech companies only to point to my insight from tonight’s reading. As a historian, I have learned all too well that both recording and interpreting information are vital instruments of power. Indexing, abstracting, describing, and organizing are instruments of power, too, which connect the recorders with the interpreters. Because the subject is not inherent in the text, to describe it is to power over both the writer, who may not have meant what the indexer says they did, and the reader, who may not ever be able to understand what the author meant because of the indexer’s choice.

This is an awesome power. It should not be taken lightly.

Reblog: “Librarians as Cultural Warriors & Protectors”

I want to reblog Lisa Hoover’s wonderful post from the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Blog without too much ado. Hoover’s post, “Librarians as Cultural Warriors & Protectors,” delves into Rebecca Knuth’s recent book Libricide to discuss the ways that librarians, archivists, curators, and other information professionals have both resisted and supported censorship. Knuth argues that “libricide” is part of a calculated effort by extremists to destroy a peoples’ culture by undermining its written heritage.

One quick rumination: I was thinking about Pierre Bourdieu while reading the post and it made me agree even more wholeheartedly as I read. In Outline of a Theory of Practice, Bourdieu argued that culture is best understood as habitus: the set of strategies, or the “rulebook,” by which people live. If x occurs, our habitus instructs us, do y. For its participants, the habitus is true. This is what troubles so many people about postmodernism. It acknowledges that what is true within one habitus is not true within another. Librarians may or may not choose to worry about truth, but a culture’s texts, in whatever form they take, are critical building blocks of habitus; and, for the culture within which they are embedded, libraries are regarded as repositories of truth. Extremism seeks to undermine truth by attacking existing authorities as well as free thought. If truth and culture are intertwined at the library—and if you’re the kind of person inclined to read the ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Blog, I’m willing to bet you agree that they are—it is no wonder that libraries are often the first target of extremists. Information professionals occupy the vanguard of the fight against extremism.

Here’s a link to the post, once again.